Written by Tyrone Bruinsma
For the record: Ad Astra refers to the phrase “Per aspera ad astra” which means “Through hardships to the stars”. Thus making As Astra = To the Stars. Just in case you wanted to know the meaning of the title.
Anyway, Ad Astra is the latest big budget studio space movie in a fairly successful modern string with the likes of Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, the Alien prequels, Life and Passengers. This time it’s Brad Pitt as an astronaut sent to save the world by finding his possibly dead astronaut father near Neptune who went missing on a research vessel involving anti-matter. Despite all the space and sci-fi material, the story is about an emotionally damaged man with father issues seeking revolution. You could take this narrative and do it as a cowboy trying to find his father in a desert or a scientist finding their parent in a missing jungle. It’s just the space setting allows for a sense of true loneliness, which is important in letting Brad Pitt be a one man show.
Actually, quick aside. Can we stop with all the “daddy issues” or “I need to find my father” plots? I know it doesn’t hurt this film, but it’s frustrating that almost every film is a character having fatherly hang ups. In this story, it’s handled well and nuanced and how you actually deal with morally grey father figures…but when it’s almost every story-it’s boring. I don’t know if every writer/filmmaker in Hollywood has daddy issues, or issues with their children or is it the same cliché being pulled out. Because it’s the plot element that killed Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and the Tomb Raider reboot. It manages to be nuanced enough here, but I REALLY want the story element to go away until more interesting things can be said.
Back to the film.
The number one thing about Ad Astra is it’s probably the best looking film this year that isn’t rendering giant monsters. James Gray has had a mostly Luke-warm track record in films like We Own the Night and The Lost City of Z, but here proves to be worthy of modern storytelling and technical masters. Of course, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by recent Christopher Nolan cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Interstellar, Spectre, Dunkirk) who turns in a unique looking and gorgeous visual spectacle. I’m hard-pressed to fully know what was CGI and what were practical effects. The film feels real in the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Martian did, making it a great experience.
The acting’s great across the board with Brad Pitt trying Matt Damon for the “I can be alone in space and be amazing” award. I’m sure there’ll be Oscar buzz for him and the film towards the end of the year and it’s deserved. Just be aware that most of the film is told in monologue from the Terrence Mallick school of narration. The rest of the cast feel mostly like extended cameos, but Tommy lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and especially Ruth Negga do well with the material.
As Astra isn’t a “fun” watch, but it’s one of those emotional and engaging dramatic adventure flicks. Starts out like Gravity, goes into 2001, then goes into stuff I’m not gonna spoil. But the closest thing to this film is the 2002 Steven Soderbergh remake of Solaris starring George Clooney in that they’re both big sci-fi movies about humanity and emotional issues with a solo winning performance.
I highly recommend this if you’re ok with a slower paced, emotionally focused sci-fi adventure than an adrenaline thrill ride.